Deaths of Australian sheep on ship to Middle East spark outcry

Too weak to stand, gasping from heat exhaustion and covered in their own excrement, the brutal deaths of more than 2,400 sheep on an Australian ship bound for the Middle East last year have sparked an outcry in a country where livestock forms a substantial segment of the economy. 

“The scale of neglect and the acceptance of suffering on these shipments is staggering,” says Lyn White from Animals Australia, a welfare concern group. 

“Sheep producers will be mortified to discover that animals born into their care have ended up literally being cooked alive on live-export vessels.” 

Secret footage of conditions on board the Awassi Express — released this week by a whistleblower — has shocked an animal loving public, thrown the live-export industry into crisis and focused attention on a global trade worth $19bn. 

Animal rights groups are calling on Canberra to ban the trade, following a similar decision taken by New Zealand in 2003 after 5,000 sheep died on board a ship bound for Saudi Arabia.

The images of dying sheep have caused revulsion in some overseas markets with Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israel’s prime minister, vowing in a Facebook video that her husband would do all he could to put an end to this “tremendous cruelty”. 

The scandal coincides with a debate in the UK, which is considering banning live exports to raise animal welfare standards as it leave the EU. British farm groups oppose closing an industry worth £441m in 2015 but campaigners say animals should be processed at home. 

“Animals should not be treated as goods, they are sentient beings,” says Phil Brooke, welfare manager at Compassion in World Farming. 

“The key exporting countries — Australia, Brazil and those in the European Union — should fatten and slaughter their animals close to the farm on which they are born and export them as carcasses.” 

Concerns about animal welfare come amid a boom in live exports with the value of trade doubling between 2003 and 2013 — according to the most recent data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization — in part due to trade deals that have reduced tariffs and other barriers.

There is increasing demand for meat and dairy products in Asia and the Middle Eastern, due to changing diets. For cultural and logistical reasons, there is often a preference for importers to fatten and slaughter animals in destination markets, where processing costs tend to be lower, say analysts.

For farmers in Australia, Brazil and elsewhere, the live-export industry provides them with alternative markets to sell their animals, which helps them manage risk and maintain price competition with domestic processors. 

Australia is one of the world’s biggest live animal exporters, sending almost 2m sheep and 1m cattle to Asia and the Middle East in 2017. The industry claims it has implemented the world’s best standards of animal welfare during transit and in overseas slaughterhouses.

The shocking footage on the Awassi Express has raised concerns among farmers, who worry a public backlash could see a repeat of a temporary ban on cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. 

“Sheep producers want to know that, when their animals leave their properties, the same high standards of care that have been provided during their ownership are continued,” says Allan Piggott, president of Sheep Producers Australia. 

The SPA has called on Canberra to increase regulation and fast-track research on vessel design and operations. 

Animal welfare campaigners say the secret footage showing cramped conditions on board the Awassi Express reflects “normal conditions” allowable under Australian regulations.

But the vessel, which carried 63,000 sheep from Fremantle, near Perth, to Qatar, had no refrigerated air conditioning — a measure that would increase shipping costs — and inadequate food, water and rest for the livestock.

David Littleproud, Australia’s agriculture minister, this week ordered a review into the live-export trade during the northern hemisphere’s summer when temperatures in the Gulf regularly soar above 30 degrees Celsius.

He is also investigating the Department of Agriculture, which regulates the trade, after revealing that an official report into the deaths on the Awassi Express did not find any breaches of standards. 

“This is the livelihood of Australian farmers that are on that ship,” said Mr Littleproud. “This is their pride and joy and this is total bullshit that what I saw has taken place.” 

Under Australian rules, an investigation into the death of sheep on live-export voyages is only sparked when the mortality rate on a ship exceeds 2 per cent.

Departmental records show Emanuel Exports, the Perth-based company responsible for the Awassi Express shipment, was involved in a similar incident a year earlier when 3,000 sheep died of heat stress on route to the Middle East. 

Emanuel Exports apologised to farmers and the community for the “absolutely unacceptable outcomes”. 

Bidda Jones, chief science officer of RSPCA Australia, the country’s largest animal welfare organisation, said it was time for Australia and other governments to ban the live-export trade. 

“If a country like Australia can’t meet acceptable animal welfare standards then it really isn’t pulling its weight,” she said.

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